Discerning The Liberty Issues Associated With COVID-19

Sep 5th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

1 Corinthians 8-10 detail the central biblical teaching on Christian liberty. The premise is that brothers and sisters in Christ should be willing to set aside their rights for the sake of others.  The COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive and has necessitated the surrender of some of our freedoms for the sake of the larger public health.  To satisfactorily balance individual rights with public health issues is excruciatingly difficult.  In this Perspective, I seek to explore in-depth the matter of religious liberty and its application to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, some important context as it relates to the United States.  America is a large country at the center of a global economy, with the tradition of prioritizing individualism over governmental restrictions and regulations.  When the state attempted to end the sale, distribution and use of alcoholic beverages during Prohibition (1918-1933), it was a dismal failure.  When various states began requiring the use of seatbelts, there was at first significant resistance.  As the connection between cancer and cigarette smoking was proven, the Surgeon General began to make a public health issue out of smoking.  Smokers resisted.  As various states have begun requiring masks and other aspects of social distancing, some Americans are pushing back, seeing such policies as restrictions on freedom and a threat to “constitutionally protected liberties.”  Add to this, the politics of COVID-19, you have a serious problem:  “In no other high-income country . . . have political leaders departed from expert advice as frequently and significantly as the Trump administration.”  Therefore, many state governors have done their best to offer consistent, focused public policy decisions, all with the goal of protecting the public from the pandemic.  Within the broader culture and, most importantly within the church, this has all produced confusion, chaos, inconsistency, fear and profound disagreements on how we should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

My primary concern, however, is the local church, not the politics of COVID-19.  Can we permit this cluster of issues produced by COVID-19 be a source of discord and division within our churches?  Is there only one way to respond to COVID-19?  Has only one church got it right, which all Christians should thus follow?  Or is there freedom within the body of Christ in how to wisely, prudently respond?  The health of church members is certainly an important concern, is it not?  [A reminder: Satan seeks to produce heresy in the church, discord in the church, to re-order the church’s priorities and to get the church to cultivate faith in power, in wealth and in human authorities, not in Christ.  Anything that seeks to get the church off focus becomes a tool of Satan.]  In October of 1529, the various leaders of the Reformation met to come up with a doctrinal statement defining Protestantism.   It was heated and angry at times.  Martin Luther was often one of the most boisterous and loud.  But his colleague, Phillip Melanchthon, advised him, “In [doctrinal] essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity [love].”   We must not permit our differences over how to respond to COVID-19 be a source of division within the church.  COVID-19 is not about salvation, sanctification, or any other major doctrine of the church.  There will be disagreements and there will be different solutions proposed, but we approach all of this with love, the fundamental mark of the church.  We may agree to disagree.

Second, permit me several biblical and historical comments:

  1. Several Christians defend their appeal to their rights and liberties as a matter of conscience.  Clearly, in terms of Scripture, it is wrong to go against conscience; indeed, James hints that it is sin to do so.  Paul argues in Romans 2:14ff, that conscience is a “witness,” a facet of God’s revelation.  However, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 8-10, conscience needs to be informed by God’s Word.  To be informed by God’s Word means that as Christians we must be willing to surrender our liberties and rights for the sake of others—his major point in 1 Corinthians 8.
  2. During the Reformation, Martin Luther had to cope every few years with what they called “plagues” in the towns and cities of Germany where he lived.  Luther talks about obeying the rules concerning taking medicine, helping practically where you can, and not getting in the way and giving the disease to others if you might be infectious. As N.T. Wright commented, “he was very pragmatic, effectively saying, ‘This is how we cope. Let’s not make a big theological fuss about it.’”  Let me cite an example:  In 1527, a deadly plague hit Martin Luther’s town of Wittenberg and he wrote a letter to a friend, the Reverend John Hess (Luther’s Works, Volume 43, p. 132: “Whether One Should Flee From A Deadly Plague.”):

 

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Furthermore, Ron Rittgers, who holds the Erich Markel Chair in German Reformation Studies at Valparaiso University, writes that  “The current pandemic is dark and menacing for many of us, and it is easy to wonder whether there is a good and sovereign God in heaven or not. Luther would welcome and even encourage such honest questions. But he would finally want to teach us how to glimpse our loving yet hidden God as he beholds us in grace through the window he has placed in this wall of suffering. This window is faith, ‘dim faith,’ which clings passionately yet always imperfectly to the Word and its promises that God loves us in all things, including suffering.  Dim faith may be all we can muster in these difficult days . . .  But it can suffice to assure us of what we most need to know: Our God is with us and for us in this crisis; he does not forsake us but eagerly seeks to help us, for this is his true heart.”

  1. What questions should the church of Jesus Christ be asking in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?  What are our rights and how can we defend them?  Or, how can the church serve?  In his wonderful book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, the British historian Tom Holland points out that many things the church and only the church used to do have now been taken on by the wider secular society. Thus many doctors and nurses who would not call themselves Christians have picked up this strong imperative to look after people, even at the potential cost of their own lives. That is a noble thing. But in the ancient world, it was only the Christians who did that. So in a sense, some of that Christian ideal has spread out into the world. And we should thank God for that.  “But in the church, we have been doing things like medicine, care of the poor, and education from day one. They are deep in the church’s DNA.”  Indeed, Holland argues that Jesus and His movement called Christianity, led “the most subversive revolution in human history, whose legacy is the ongoing disruption of settled patterns of life.”  With His emphasis on love and human equality, Jesus undermined tyranny, racism, men’s abuse of women and selfish imperialism.  He offered salvation to all humans and provided the foundation for a new kingdom, the kingdom of God—with values, virtues and standards that undermine the kingdom of darkness in this broken, fallen world.  His call is a radical call to discipleship that transcends and overcomes ethnic-political loyalties.  His followers have a loyalty to Him above all else. As He served, His disciples serve (see John 13).  In this pandemic, the church should be asking, how can we serve others?
  2. I have been thinking historically and biblically about the concept of the kingdom in Scripture.  The kingdom is the sovereign rule of God over His creation.  It has been challenged by Satan’s rebellion, which humanity has joined (see Isaiah 14:12ff, Ezekiel 28:12ff; Genesis 3).  Satan’s kingdom is one of darkness, rebellion and evil, which Jesus, as the light of the world, is challenging.  When Jesus began His public ministry, His summary message was “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand” (see Matthew 4:17; the same message as John the Baptist, Matthew 3:2).  Jesus preached “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23).  We are instructed to pray “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  This messianic, Davidic kingdom supplants the evil kingdom of darkness over which Satan rules.  Indeed, Paul declares that, at salvation, God “delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).  We are now ambassadors of our King, representing Him, His kingdom and the values, virtues and standards of our King. He defeated Satan at the cross and His return to earth will forever put down the rebellion and bring God’s rule to earth during His Messianic kingdom of 1,000 years (see Revelation 20).  Then the “kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ” (Revelation 11:15).  Members of the church are citizens of the kingdom (Philippians 3:20), acknowledging Jesus as Lord and King (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9-10) and serving as His ambassadors until He returns (2 Corinthians 5:20).

 

This is what Christ is getting at when He declares we are “salt and light.”  Throughout history, depending on the culture, on who is in power and on the possibility of persecution, the church has swung from being “escapists” to being “triumphalist.”  Both, however, are unbiblical.  Historians such as Alvin Schmidt and Tom Holland have demonstrated that from the time of the early church, Christians have engaged with and hence transformed the society around them.  Following God’s Word, Christians emphasized fundamental attitudes about the value of human life, the sanctity of marriage and sexual fidelity, and the importance of marital responsibility.  But the three strands that bind the biblical revelation of God’s work in history (through His church) are kingdom, covenant and mediator.  The Lord Jesus is King and His New Covenant relationship with His redeemed people is the greatest evidence of His lordship.  His redeemed are the covenant citizens of His kingdom.  At the center of God’s Kingdom and His New Covenant is Jesus, the Messiah and Mediator.   Therefore, when the church sees itself as not only a group of saved individuals, but also as the visible evidence of Christ’s Kingdom in the midst of the false kingdom of darkness, then we truly understand the metaphors of “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16).  The church is the salt and light of the King.  As Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 make clear, Christ’s universal kingdom knows no limits, no boundaries.  God’s New Covenant in Christ is creating a new humanity.  Therefore, in the 1st and 2nd centuries, His church, made up of the redeemed citizens of His Kingdom, save discarded babies, cared for the sick, buried bodies left to rot and blessed rather than cursed their enemies and accusers.  These citizens of this New Kingdom were infused with the hope and power of the age to come.  In the 21st century, we are called to be Kingdom-honoring citizens living in the New Covenant community representing and seeking our King’s glory and honor.  That profound truth should inform how the church responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christian freelance writer Meredith Sell issues this challenge:  “Every culture has conventions and norms that shape default attitudes and behaviors.  Some of these norms develop in response to legitimate fears and dangers.  But what happens when they put our own needs and desires at the center, rather than God and His love for the least and the lost?  What happens when cultural norms take stronger root in the church than the call to ‘love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) and “to love your enemies?”  . . . There are parts of gospel living that sit well in our cultural context, and those parts are important, but it’s the parts that run counter to our culture that demand the firmest degree of commitment.  Where our culture holds those different from us at arm’s length, we need to show hospitality and honor.  Where our culture drives us toward spiritual apathy and cynicism, we need to foster a hunger to see (and celebrate) God’s work in the world. Where our culture drives us to cling to power and privilege, we need to sacrifice for the good of others . . . countercultural faithfulness is what enables the gospel to shine.”  Christians are called to be a kingdom-honoring covenant community seeking Christ’s glory in everything we do.

See Bill Green in Tabletalk (July 202), pp. 70-71; Meredith Sell quoted by Matt Reynolds, CT Books for 28 July 2020 at www.christianittoday.com; and David Leonhardt in the New York Times (7 August 2020).

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